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Israeli troops roll into Gaza

Strikes hit bridges, power plant as military seeks soldier's rescue
An Israeli armored vehicle early Wednesday after orders were given to begin the rescue operation.




JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli troops and armored vehicles crossed into southern Gaza early Wednesday in what the Israeli military said was an attempt to rescue a soldier kidnapped by Palestinian militants.

Soldiers backed by artillery traveled from the Israeli military encampment in Kerem Shalom to the southern Gaza town of Rafah, near the Gaza-Israel-Egypt border, said the Israeli Defense Ministry.

The Israelis took up positions in Gaza shortly before 3 a.m. (8 p.m. ET) in the area where Cpl. Gilad Shalit was abducted Sunday. Two other Israeli soldiers were killed in the weekend raid by Palestinian militants who tunneled into Israel.

"The IDF will continue to act with determination and to employ all means at its disposal to combat terrorists and their infrastructure ... and will continue to make every effort to return Cpl. Shalit home quickly and safely," the military said Wednesday in a statement.

"The Palestinian Authority, led by the democratically elected Hamas government, is fully responsible for any attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip, and Israel holds it responsible for the safe and quick return of Cpl. Shalit."

Before Wednesday's incursion began, two rounds of Israeli airstrikes knocked out a power plant in Gaza City, cutting power to most of the territory. Video from the Palestinian Ramattan news agency showed fires burning at the site.

Two bridges in central Gaza were hit in order to restrict the movement of the militants holding Shalit, said Capt. Jacob Dallal, a military spokesman.

"We are trying to make it clear to the Palestinian Authority and to the terror organizations that we will take the necessary steps to secure his safe return," Dallal said.

Another airstrike knocked out a bridge connecting the northern and southern districts of Gaza City, witnesses told CNN. Later, the Israelis struck one of the three bridges again.

Capt. Noa Meir, a military spokeswoman, said Israeli commanders have a "general idea" where Shalit was being held. (Watch scenes of Gaza damage as tanks roll -- 2:07)

"We still hope to return safely our kidnapped soldier," Daniel Ayalon, Israeli ambassador to the United States, told CNN Tuesday night from Washington. Israel will call its operation off if Shalit is released safely, he added.

After the kidnapping, Ayalon said, "We had no choice but to react."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his parliament Tuesday to expect "an extended campaign against the Palestinian Authority" unless Shalit was released.

"All targets" would be considered for possible action, Olmert said the day after ruling out any deals with militants for Shalit's release.

But Meir said Israeli troops have no plan to reoccupy the territory, from which Israel withdrew in 2005.

"Our troops have gone in in order to get Cpl. Shalit home safely," she said. "That is the sole intention of our operations."

Meanwhile, a group claiming to have taken another Israeli man hostage in the West Bank threatened to kill the settler if Israeli troops did not withdraw.

Israel has massed troops at the edge of Gaza while demanding the return of Shalit. The incursion marks Israel's first large-scale move into the Palestinian territory since its troops and settlers left last September. (Watch soldier's family, Israelis wait and remember history -- 2:36)

All Palestinian factions have pleaded with Israel to hold off on military action, saying an offensive would only complicate efforts to end the crisis.

Feverish negotiations between Palestinian leaders and the militants who are holding the Israeli soldier continued Tuesday. (Watch Palestinians express defiance as tensions rise -- 2:34)

Aides said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was directly involved in talks with Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of the ruling Islamic militant party Hamas.

Israel has slapped a land and sea blockade on Gaza, cutting off people's movements and shipments of fuel and food, nine months after returning control of the territory to the Palestinians.

Inside Gaza, Palestinians have dumped piles of sand on major roads, intended to slow any advance of Israeli tanks and armor and provide cover for gunmen.

Mideast analyst Aaron David Miller told CNN it was not clear whether Israeli forces knew the abducted soldier's location or whether the incursion was meant to increase pressure on the Palestinian Authority.

"Their major objective is to try to find a way to extricate this soldier and get him back safely," said Miller, a former U.S. State Department official and Mideast negotiator. "That may well be the only thing that stands between the situation we have now and a serious escalation."

Settler threatened

The Popular Resistance Committee -- one of the Palestinian militant groups holding Shalit -- said it was also holding the Israeli settler in the West Bank.

Israeli police said a family in the settlement of Itamar, near Nablus in the West Bank, had filed a missing persons report.

After Israeli troops moved into Gaza, the group issued a statement threatening to kill their West Bank captive unless Israel pulled back.

The missing settler was identified as 18-year-old Eliyahu Asheri. He was last seen Sunday night at a hitchhiking post in Jerusalem, and his parents reported him missing Monday afternoon.

Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza last year after more than 37 years of occupation. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the pullout, along with the withdrawal of Israelis from four small areas of the West Bank, was part of a plan to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But Israel stepped up airstrikes and shelling in recent weeks as Palestinians continued to fire crude Qassam rockets into Israeli territory.

"For the last six, seven months, we've been receiving more than 800 rockets from Gaza terrorizing our southern communities, and they do need and deserve protection and security from our government," Ayalon said. "There is no excuse for them to keep shelling our towns."

Israel's deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, recognized a split among Palestinians and blamed exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal for Shalit's kidnapping. Peres said Meshaal "wants to destroy any chance for peace."

"All this was done against, maybe, the better judgment of the Palestinian leaders on the ground," Peres told CNN. "The orders came from Syria. They came from a gentleman who wants to destroy any chance for peace."

Meshaal, the head of the Hamas political office, lives in exile in Damascus.

Peres said Israel believes that Shalit, who holds dual Israeli-French citizenship, is "alive and healthy."

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